Wilmer Joel, Julia Rijino and Izerman Yamaguchi-Kotton. (Photos by Michelle Mizner/GroundTruth/FRONTLINE)

By Jessie Mai Mitnick, age 12

Izerman Yamaguchi-Kotton, a 9-year-old boy, squats down on the shoreline of his local beach, arranging white-and-fawn-striped shells from smallest to largest. Every morning after breakfast he loves to come down to the beach and check on his pet crabs in the rock pools. His hobbies include collecting bugs, snorkeling on the reef, and one day he wants to become an entomologist and study the insects and wildlife of his home, the Marshall Islands. He says that life on his island of Majuro “is free.”

Izerman’s story is one of three stories in The Last Generation, an interactive documentary by Katie Worth and Michelle Mizner for The GroudTruth Project, about how kids who live in the Marshall Islands are being affected by climate change. Through videos, photos, interviews and text, this project transports you into their classrooms and their homes, giving you a window into their daily lives and an understanding of what they’re experiencing.

Izerman loves his home and does not want to leave. But climate change is threatening the Marshall Islands and the lives of all the people he loves.

The Marshall Islands consist of two archipelagos, or two island chains, and 29 atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Climate change is causing ice to melt in the North and South poles and sea levels to rise, and because the Marshall Islands are only two meters above sea level, they are at risk of flooding.

But The Last Generation doesn’t just focus on how rising sea levels will impact the island and its residents, but also how rising temperatures in the ocean are causing coral bleaching and killing marine plants and animals in the area.

Even though the Marshall Islands barely contribute to climate change—they have committed to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—they are the ones suffering the biggest consequences.

Since 1995, almost 20,000 Marshallese have left the islands, including lots of Izerman’s family. Climate change is becoming a more prominent factor in people’s reason to leave. The documentary highlights young people because they are the ones who will be impacted the hardest. The Marshall Islands has a very young population. It’s home to 50,000 people, and half of them are under 18. The country could become uninhabitable within their lifetime.

Julia Rijino

This is not the first time Marshallese have been forced from their homes and their safety threatened.

The family of Julia Rijino, another young person profiled in the documentary is actually from another island in the Marshall Islands. Her family’s homeland is called Bikini but everyone who lived there — including her grandparents — had to leave because the U.S. used the land to test nuclear bombs.

The U.S. took control of the Marshall Islands in 1944 during the Second World War, because of its strategic position in the Pacific. They started testing nuclear weapons there from 1946 and it went on until 1958.  In that time, the U.S. tested 67 nuclear bombs. “We’re not at Bikini anymore because it’s poisoned,” Julia says. The Marshall Islands gained its independence from U.S. control in 1986, but the legacy of what the U.S. did there still impacts them today.

Julia dreams of becoming a scientist so she can test the levels of radiation on Bikini. Just like Izerman, Julia knows how climate change is impacting her home, but she doesn’t want to leave, in fact she wants to make it better for them.

Wilmer Joel

Wilmer Joel, another person profiled in the documentary, is a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands because he thinks presidents can make the country a better place. He is passionate about his home and is dedicated to doing everything in his capacity to preserve it. “When the Marshall Islands will be gone, it’s like the end of life to me. Like, the end of the world,” he says. Wilmer will not leave the Marshall Islands whatever the consequences are. It is his home and he is devoted to never letting climate change or any other reason take that away.

Katie Worth and Michelle Mizner created The Last Generation as a platform for three passionate children who live in the Marshall Islands to tell their stories. They are giving the world a new perspective on climate change as they show how it is changing the lives of many individuals, including children.

Since June 2017, when Donald Trump announced that he was pulling the U.S. out from the Paris Climate Agreement—a UN policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change— the estimates for how long until major flooding will hit the Marshall Islands dropped to only 38 years from 2018. But the Marshall Islands aren’t the only place being greatly affected by climate change. According to a study mentioned in the documentary, from 2017, 153 million people live in environments that could be completely underwater by 2100. Many of these people are children just like Izerman, Julia, and Wilmer.

Wilmer will not let climate change force him away from the only home he’s ever known, “Someday I will prove to them wrong. This island is not going to be gone. Because I am dedicated to this place. Like, I was destined to be in this place. That’s why I’m going to stay here. I’m not going to leave. I’m going to stay watch. Even if it means to drown…But in my perspective the Marshall Islands are still here today. We must help each other and fight back.”

“If the science is true, the best thing I can do is prepare an action plan,” he says.

Watch the interactive documentary to find out what these young people are experiencing and what they say needs to happen to prevent their homes from disappearing:

thegroundtruthproject.org/last-generation

Glossary: 

Atolls- coral islands consisting of a reef surrounding a lagoon.

Prominent – important or well known.

Uninhabitable – A place where you are unable to live in

Coral bleaching – corals are invertebrate (animals that have no backbone) marine animals that live in tropical oceans. Corals have polyps that use calcium carbonate (limestone) from seawater to build a hard, cup-shaped skeleton. They also have algae that live on the polyps, which give the corals nutrients and their color. As the algae are plants, they can get energy from the sun via photosynthesis and transfer this food to the coral. When temperatures become too high algae can die. When that algae goes, so does the coral’s source of food. This loss of colorful algae means the coral looks white, or “bleached.” If temperatures do not quickly return to safe levels, the corals starve and die. In addition to climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, not only make the water warmer, the gases also make the water more acidic, which makes it difficult for coral to grow and survive.

Radiation- is energy that moves from one place to another. There are different forms of radiation and nuclear radiation is one of them. Nuclear radiation, from things such as nuclear weapons or nuclear power disasters can have very dangerous impacts on your health.